Russian forces are trying to press deeper into eastern Ukraine and seize the entire Donetsk region after capturing neighbouring Luhansk, the Luhansk governor has said.
Ukraine’s military command confirmed on Sunday evening that its troops had been forced to pull back from the city of Lysychansk, the last bulwark of Ukrainian resistance in Luhansk, one of the two regions that make up the country’s eastern industrial heartland of Donbas.
The Russian defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, told Vladimir Putin on Sunday that its forces had established full control over Lysychansk and several nearby settlements, the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti reported.
Since abandoning an assault on the capital, Kyiv, Russia has concentrated its military operation on Donbas, where Moscow-backed separatist proxies have been fighting Ukraine since 2014. The Russians control about half of Donetsk.
Serhiy Haidai, the governor of Luhansk, said he expected the Donetsk cities of Sloviansk and Bakhmut to come under heavy attack as Russia attempts to take full control of Donbas.
“The loss of the Luhansk region is painful because it is the territory of Ukraine,” Haidai told Reuters. “For me personally, this is special. This is the homeland where I was born and I am also the head of the region.”
The governor said that while Ukrainian forces’ withdrawal from Lysychansk “hurts a lot … it’s not losing the war.” He said the retreat from Lysychansk had been “centralised” and orderly, and had been carried out to save the lives of Ukrainian soldiers who were in danger of being surrounded.
“[Russian forces] will not transfer 100% of their troops to some front because they need to hold the line. If they leave their positions then ours can carry out some kind of counteroffensive,” he said. “Still, for them goal number one is the Donetsk region. Sloviansk and Bakhmut will come under attack – Bakhmut has already started being shelled very hard.”
Bakhmut, Sloviansk and nearby Kramatorsk lie south-west of Lysychansk and are the main urban areas holding out against Russian forces in Donetsk.
Haidai said the weeks-long battle for Lysychansk had drawn in Russian troops that could have been fighting on other fronts, and had given Ukraine’s forces time to build fortifications in the Donetsk region to make it “harder for the Russians there”.
He added: “The [Russian] tactics will be the same. They will shoot at everything with their artillery, but it will be difficult for them to move forward.”
Haidai reiterated calls for Ukraine’s western allies to provide more arms, saying they had “understood too late” what was happening. He said the country’s armed forces would launch a counteroffensive when they had sufficient long-range weapons. “They just shoot our positions around the clock from a distance,” he said of the Russians.
An intelligence briefing on Monday from the UK’s Ministry of Defence said Russian forces would now “almost certainly” switch to trying to capture Donetsk. The briefing said the conflict in Donbas had been “grinding and attritional” and this was unlikely to change in the coming weeks.
The general staff of the Ukrainian military said the Russian forces were focusing their efforts on pushing toward the line of Siversk, Fedorivka and Bakhmut in Donetsk.
Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, acknowledged the loss of Lysychansk on Sunday night and said the area would be retaken. “If the command of our army withdraws people from certain points of the front where the enemy has the greatest fire superiority – in particular this applies to Lysychansk – it means only one thing: we will return thanks to our tactics, thanks to the increase in the supply of modern weapons.”
Zelenskiy stressed that an enormous task lay ahead as he prepared to address leaders from dozens of countries and organisations who are gathering in Switzerland on Monday to hash out a “Marshall plan” to rebuild Ukraine.
“The volume of the works on already liberated territories is really colossal,” he said. “And we will have to free over 2,000 villages and towns in the east and south of Ukraine.”
The two-day conference, held under tight security in the southern Swiss city of Lugano, was planned well before the invasion and was originally slated to discuss reforms in Ukraine, before being repurposed to focus on reconstruction.
Reuters, the Associated Press and Agence France-Presse contributed to this report.